My Examen

Give me only your love and grace. That is enough for me.
Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Suscipe

Resolution is void.
The more I look inward,
the more each motive,
each spirit I discern
becomes a snarl, a defiant reminder
that my best attempts are, at best, no good.

Though I ask my conscience to justify
each act from rising to setting of sun,
only the man on the tree has answers for me.
My questions, at best, hammer nails.

What am I doing, have done for Christ?
The soldier sounds the Spirit’s reveille;
Morning exercise leaves me faint;
only Your love, Your grace animate me.

Lying upon my desultory stone,
this alone can console: the sight
of heaven descending to where I lie,
and God in this place, though I did not know.

The moment

when I realise
not that I must always be Somewhere –
fording some Jordan, scaling some Hebron,
engaged in daily grandiose deeds –
but that here, now,
at the interstice of wilful self
and the ever-grinding call
to nothing grand but

a pile of dishes,
a child needing a hug,
a moment of playing at eye-level on the floor,
a gracious word to turn away my own vigilant wrath,

is precisely where
the fear, the trembling, the working-out
of Grace’s grindstone begins.

Nourish the Soil

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none…(Luke 13:6)

If year after year I too am fruitless,
it is not for want of grace, for want
of a vine dresser to plead my plaintive case.
No, fruitlessness stems from only this:
that, granted all the soil in the world,
I prefer to go it alone,
feeding from my own proud stalk,
refusing sun, abusing breath.
What I reject as manure is
the food that I should humbly eat.
Another year; another day;
a thousand years in your gracious sight:
grant me the drooping roots to take
the life rising from Your soil.

Easter Sunday

Unintentionally, I keep vigil the night before
while my son, restless for the dawn,
unsettled by the changing of the clocks,
bids me stay awake and pray.
Some sleep gained before sunrise, yet when the lights comes
it feels somehow the natural outworking of the night,
for I’ve walked through all its stations,
met its passing watches.
And when it’s time
to take off the rags of sleep and roll back the stone for the sun,
day seems natural, an arrival at home.
Yet when it comes I am weary,
ready to return to night,
and when night comes the routine
of dishes and rubbish bins consumes
the wonders of the vigil past.
Sun and moon and clocks distract:
in spite of us, eternity wins each linear day
and Grace keeps vigil over tapering hearts.

Christmas 2: Never Faint Nor Fear

Today, as well as the day for the year’s biggest sales, is also Boxing Day and, as the mysterious carol “Good King Wenceslas” should remind us, St Stephen’s Day. Most likely the Stephen commemorated today was the one martyred in the Acts of the Apostles, so one tradition of today is to sing carols that remind us of his faith. It’s also a day traditionally not about spending but of giving: boxing up gifts to give to the poor, hence the name “Boxing Day”. Today’s poem, for the second day of Christmas, draws together these themes, via an old St Stephen’s Day carol of indeterminate age, played beautifully in this version.

Never Faint Nor Fear

The tree still stands, the presents gone;
They’re boxed and put away.
We rest our feet and pick at food
Left over from yesterday.

Saint Václav and his squire walk
Through snow and in Christ’s footsteps;
We follow signs instead that tell
Of bargains and tax offsets.

If Stephen sat amongst us here,
He’d wonder at our tinsel.
The red, perhaps, foreshadows blood?
So sing the old-time minstrels.

O never faint, and never fear,
Unless your debt be looming.
Pay back your credit card and watch
The lowly rose e’er blooming.

The child soon will mount the cross;
How well St Stephen knew this.
Yet do not dwell so long on that,
Lest it should ruin Christmas.

Instead, you might behold the sight:
The Son of Man is shining.
He climbed the tree, for you, for me,
In sin and error pining.

It is not yours to climb, and yet
The grace may prove contagious.
Let Christmas drive you out in storms
With love and gifts outrageous.

Unexpected Faith: Terrence Malick and the “Love that loves us”

American philosopher-turned-filmmaker Terrence Malick does not make crowd-pleasers. He does not even feel any great compulsion to actually make films, although he has made more films in the last decade than he did for the first 30 years of his career. A little like Marilynne Robinson’s novels, Malick’s films emerge from some slow, meditative, beauty-processor that cannot be rushed yet almost always satisfies. Sometimes it produces a few masterpieces in quick succession; sometimes it does nothing for a decade. Yet everything that he produces is touched with transcendence and immanence all at once.

Also like Robinson, Malick’s work is generally transfigured by a deeply Christian sensibility. One journalist, Damon Linker, began his review of Malick’s 2016 film Knight of Cups with the question, “What if Christianity is right after all?” Malick’s 2011 masterpiece The Tree of Life blended scenes of cosmic creation with reflections on “the way of law” and the “way of grace”. Belief and unbelief are everywhere in his work, and sometimes the absence of God is the most tangible sign of His reality.

This is perhaps best expressed in the follow-up to The Tree of Life, 2013’s To the Wonder. Malick’s third-shortest film at just under 2 hours, To the Wonder is a slow, sun-dazzled and often heartbreaking meditation on love, hate, rejection and forgiveness, featuring the often unexceptional Ben Affleck in a role so understated that few others could do it so well, with Affleck using muted facial expression the way Hemingway uses silence. Yet the fact that Affleck is in the film is almost irrelevant; he is a brooding presence that demands no more nor less attention than the wheatfields of Kansas or its many broken residents to whom Javier Bardem’s priest character serves communion and offers grace. Malick famously casts prominent actors in his films then does not use most of if any of their footage. George Clooney had a couple of minutes at the end of The Thin Red Line, while John Travolta’s scene in that film was included but not credited. Rachel Weisz didn’t even make it to the final cut of To the Wonder, and Rachel McAdams has only a small, although significant, portion of the film devoted to her. Yet this all seems fitting. The Christianity Today article on the film commented that Malick’s disregard for the famous actors he casts is part and parcel of his view of humanity in the grand scheme of the cosmos, and in To The Wonder this takes on deep spiritual significance when the stars that are cast in the leading roles are given no more dignity – yet also no less – than the drug addicts and prisoners with whom Bardem mixes. Some of the film’s most tender moments come from its unknown and unnamed cameos. Fittingly, in the lead characters’ first wedding, taking place in a courtroom, (they are later married in a church), the witnesses to the marriage are prisoners, still handcuffed. Similar gravitas is granted to the prisoners who receive communion from Bardem through the slots in the doors of their prison cells later in the film.

To the Wonder is no easy Christian allegory, and many Christian audiences will shy away from it. This is first because Malick’s films are hard for anyone to watch without a strong degree of stamina or stubbornness. To the Wonder‘s hour and fifty-two minutes feels substantially longer because of the film’s often speechless slowness (the screenplay must surely only come in at a few pages, and much of what dialogue Malick includes is inaudible, as though the actual words themselves carry little significance). Also, some Christians would struggle no doubt with the way that faith is presented in the film. Most of the characters are torn between love for God and the love that “pulls [them] down to earth”, and love for God is often punctuated by long silences or a thirst for earthly satisfaction expressed in lust and adultery. Yet the film’s portrayal of sex is subtle, and its few moments of nudity are brief and tame. Although the film’s opening scenes might make it look like it is primarily concerned with the line between lust and love, sexual passion seems ultimately to be just one of the many expressions of how humans thirst for meaning and connection, and the film’s most powerful moment is not in any sexual or romantic exchange between characters but is instead the extended sequence towards the end in which we see a nun wash cutlery and Bardem serve communion on desolate streets in his neighbourhood, while in the background Gorecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” plays and Bardem’s voice recites the prayer of St Patrick: “Christ be with me. Christ before me. Christ behind me…” Thirst for God is everywhere in this film and trumps every other human thirst.

Though I can understand why, it’s a shame that more people have not seen To the Wonder, especially men and women who share Malick’s faith. There aren’t many more powerful evocations of divine love and grace going around at the moment than Malick’s films, and To the Wonder is one of the tenderest.

Uncovered Gems #4: François Mauriac

The list of Nobel laureates for Literature contains more French men than it does of any other demographic. That should not put you off reading Mauriac. But you may have trouble locating his work. His most famous novel, Thérèse Desqueyroux, is possibly the only one you’ll find in a bookshop today, due to the recent film adaptation starring Audrey Tatou. And it’s a good place to start with Mauriac. 

Better than good. Aside from the beauty of the writing and its complex vision of sin and grace, it’s an important novel for understanding him as an author. The character of Thérèse also features in a number of novels and stories, and even has a cameo in That Which Was Lost, so she clearly meant a lot to him.  

But there’s more to Mauriac than one novel, and you’ll need to go further afield to find out. It’s a strange fact that most Nobel laureates are not readily available in bookshops. But the internet was invented for solving issues like these. The majority of Mauriac’s novels are free downloads if you are willing to read facsimiles of old editions. And you should be, because not many Christian writes have tackled human sin and divine grace quite so skillfully as Mauriac. He’s sometimes called the French Graham Greene. There’s some truth to the comparison but I don’t think Mauriac liked the crime thriller quite like Greene did, and I find more living faith and less guilt in Mauriac. The closest thing I’ve found in English to his writing is Brideshead Revisited. Both show people living in complete disregard for God and discovering Him in completely unexpected ways nonetheless.

Some writers of faith get reprinted and sold at Christian bookshops, even when faith is not their main subject. Chesterton and Austen have both had fairly secular novels get the Christian marketing treatment. Not Mauriac, and I can see why. His faith is more overt than Austen’s but will make us more uncomfortable. (Perhaps Austen would too if we read her properly.) He doesn’t shy away from broken and messy realities, and even had to write a book called God and Mammon responding to André Gide (another French man who won the Nobel) who saw more kinship between himself and Mauriac than Mauriac was happy to accept. His work is gritty in a way that can’t sit next to Christian romance novels, but it should. Our shelves, and our faith, would be richer for it.

For me, the best thing he’s written is Viper’s Tangle, the story of a wealthy man dying with the knowledge that his whole family cares only about securing his wealth on his death. The viper’s tangle of the title is the complex rhizome of bitterness and resentment that has grown in his heart and mind all his adult life. I read it at the same time as Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Illyich and the two have much in common. Both made me wonder why we don’t have more Christian writers who can dramatise the movements of grace like that. Sadly, in our attempts to keep Christian literature clean, we’ve kept the power of grace out. Christian fiction does not need to be an allegory of the gospel to paint the gospel in all the rich colours of God’s creation. If more of our writes today took the time to uncover Mauriac, we might produce more novels that could help untangle the vipers in our own hearts.